There are a lot of larger-than-life characters inhabiting Wouterina de Raad’s garden.
Stroll the grounds with the sunny artist, and she’ll introduce them to you one by one, in her charming Dutch accent.
Near the driveway, welcoming visitors, are the farming couple “Millie and Jack.” Anchoring one end of the clothesline is “Gary Knutson,” named for a neighbor. Over by a small pond is “Francisco,” inspired by a fisherman she met in Mexico.
There’s also a flying mermaid, a giant alligator and a rooster dubbed “Loverboy.”
The fanciful characters, about 100 in all, are mosaic sculptures that De Raad has created and displays in her expansive garden in Beldenville, Wis.
“Everything has a story,” she said.
Including De Raad herself, whose story is as colorful as her creations. She grew up on her parents’ coffee plantation on the East Indian island of Java, where she absorbed the myths and legends that infuse her artwork today. (That explains the flying mermaid.)
Even her name has an exotic back story. Her parents, both World War II concentration camp survivors, were separated during their confinement. “They didn’t think they’d ever see each other again, but they were reunited after the war,” De Raad said. When their daughter was born not long after that, they united their names — “Wouter” (Dutch for Walter) and “Rina.”
As a child, De Raad hated her unwieldy name and started calling herself Riana. “I’ve been Riana for a long time — until my parents passed away,” she said. “Now I use it to honor them.”
Her family eventually returned to the Netherlands, their native country, and in 1967, De Raad emigrated to the United States with her then-husband, a dental student who came to attend the University of Minnesota.
By the late 1980s, De Raad was on her own. A fiber artist at the time, she moved to the River Falls, Wis., area to study with a professor at the University of Wisconsin.
That pivotal move led her to the land that became her garden and inspired her to embrace a new art form. She found a little farmhouse to rent. Built in 1874, it had no indoor plumbing and minimal electricity, and there was a tree growing through the soffit. But the rent was cheap, and she figured that she could shower at the college.
Shards of inspiration
She fell in love with the little house and eventually persuaded her landlord to sell it to her. The previous tenants had been potters, and when they weren’t satisfied with their pots, they smashed them against the trees. So De Raad raked up the shards and, being an artist, started imagining creative things she could do with them. She’d recently taught herself how to stucco, as a way to repair one of her dilapidated outbuildings. Now that she was comfortable with cement, she tried her hand at making a concrete sculpture and decorating it with the shards.
Her first creation was “Millie,” the farm wife. “She just belonged here,” De Raad said. “I loved it.” Then she made “Jack,” Millie’s husband, and was hooked.
“Doing mosaics is really fun! It’s addicting,” she said. “I saw I could create a whole environment. It got me so excited I could not stop. Why would you?”
Transforming her farmland into gardens became part of creating that magical environment. She started small. “When I first started the garden, I could only afford one or two plants,” she said.
After she established one garden, she moved on to another. “I wanted to create rooms,” she said. “It was wide open, and I wanted to make it more intimate.” Over the years, her efforts have gradually expanded into a series of “garden rooms” spread over 1.5 acres, creating a landscape so captivating that garden clubs book bus trips to visit.
“I like big flushes of color,” De Raad said, so she does a lot of mass plantings. “It’s more calming. Otherwise, it’s too busy.”
Foliage, in different colors and varied leaf shapes, adds visual interest even when the flowers aren’t blooming.
“I specialize in more unusual varieties,” she said, such as Rooguchi clematis, a smaller variety with a bell-shaped flower, and astilboides, a giant-leafed plant from Asia.
The resourceful artist also constructed her own hardscape, including concrete benches, a fireplace and even an outdoor sink next to her studio. “I built the path,” she said. “Every piece of stone, I hauled in. I made the stick fences. I love keeping busy.”
That’s an understatement.
When she’s not gardening or building fences, De Raad continues to make sculptures and teach others. She hosts workshops in her studio, a log cabin that dates to the mid-1800s (her partner, Derek, restores log homes). “The farmer was going to burn it down, but we disassembled it and moved it here,” she said.
In her studio, she experiments with other art projects, including making shadowboxes and quirky, playful lamps built with “junk” such as car parts, bottlecaps and olive-oil cans.
But she still loves making concrete mosaic sculptures and honing her technique. “I’ve made up my own cement formulas, my own way of coloring cement,” she said. “I like things to look old,” so she experimented until she found a formula that made the cement absorb the pigment quickly and unevenly, giving it an instant aged look.
She mixes her cement by hand, in a trough using a garden hoe. “A cement mixer is no good,” she said.
She doesn’t tile every piece of sculpture. “Sometimes it fights with the textures and colors of the plants.” And she leaves many of her garden pieces exposed to the elements. “By not sealing my work, lichens start to grow on them. It makes them really cool.”
Teaching brings her great satisfaction, she said. “I get e-mails all the time saying, ‘Look what I did!’ ” (One student in northern Minnesota used De Raad’s technique to create three life-size bear sculptures playing musical instruments to greet visitors at her home.)
De Raad also has unleashed her creativity on the little farmhouse. After she added a bathroom, she spent two months creating a vibrant mosaic-tiled shower inspired by tropical foliage.
Now a grandmother of four, De Raad has no desire to downshift to a more leisurely home or way of life. “I do love it,” she said of her self-created paradise. “I can garden, make sculpture and listen to the sounds” of wind and wildlife. “I would like to be buried here.”
Being recognized for her efforts is nice, but the sculpture garden is its own reward.
“I don’t need to enter a contest,” she said. (Her garden was nominated as a “Beautiful Garden” by a visitor, unbeknown to De Raad.) “I win already. I’m here!”